Starting From Scratch

I confess I haven’t done very much writing this week. This is partly because I’ve just finished the first draft of one project and am now leaving it to settle for a bit before coming back to it and re-reading it with what I hope will be a fresh perspective.

This can be a bracing, even shocking experience. It takes a certain period of time to be able to read something objectively, ie with enough distance to realise that your lovingly crafted masterpiece is in fact pretty much a load of old cobblers. With any luck, there’ll be a few nice turns of phrase, a couple of decent lines of dialogue that really do reflect what you were trying to achieve in the first place and which give you enough to build on as you start on The Rewrite.

It’s an accepted truth among the screenwriting fraternity that the first draft of anything will be crap. Not being much of a prose writer, I don’t know to what extent this holds true for novels and short stories but it’s certainly the case for screenplays. It’s quite common even for well-established writers to find that it isn’t until they’re on the fourth or fifth draft that they really begin to get a proper sense of the story they’re trying to tell.

There are innumerable tales of scripts that were re-written again and again – literally dozens of times – as their creators did battle with the detailed specifics of character, theme and plot in order to create a story that would really resonate on the big screen.

Emma Thomson spent five years working on the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility and is alleged – though I can’t vouch for it – to have written in excess of ninety drafts before shooting began.

Blog pics

Mind you, it’s brilliant and manages to remain true to the essence of Jane Austen’s original novel while making it relevant and true for a modern audience too. It quite deservedly won an Oscar.

Real writing is damned hard work and there’s no getting away from that fact. I was at an event for TV writers yesterday during which there was a panel discussion with Toby Whithouse, who wrote Being Human and No Angels and Richard Warlow, who created Ripper Street and Mistresses. Both spoke about the years that it took to get these projects off the ground.

Asked about his writing methods on Being Human, Toby Whithouse talked eloquently about the pages and pages of preparatory material he produced – every detail of each character and relationship, documents scoping out the entire world of the story and examining every possible permutation of the plot. This is what it took for him to feel that he knew story well enough to start actually writing the script. It took months and months and no-one but him ever saw or read these notes.

Being human

As an aside, it was interesting to hear that the original idea for the series was that it was about an ordinary flatshare, and it took several drafts for Whithouse to realise that none of the protagonists were alive!

Perhaps the biggest irony of writing for the screen is the amount of sheer effort it takes to produce what? A couple of hours of idle entertainment on a Saturday night. It’s all too easy to dismiss out of hand what may have amounted to years of someone’s life, something they’ve sweated blood to create. I don’t for one minute pretend that all films are good, but I do try to give proper thought and consideration to what the writer and director were trying to achieve, even if they haven’t completely succeeded. As a fellow sufferer, I owe them that at least.

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8 Comments

Filed under Film, Screenwriting, TV, Writing

8 responses to “Starting From Scratch

  1. I don’t have the first clue about writing for the screen, but totally empathise with the effort needed to produce a ‘finished’ manuscript. I have completed 3 novels. The first, which took over four years (I was still learning!) lays languishing in a file until ‘one-day-maybe’ dawns. The second, now published on Amazon as ‘Strong as Death’, took two years and countless redrafts; in fact, I have just done a ‘quick’ re edit, which took over a month to complete. I am just about to start the redrafting process, after having had it proof read, of the first draft of my next manuscript. I say first draft, but, in truth, the first part of that draft bit only means it’s the first draft anyone apart from me has laid eyes on; it’s probably been through at least six drafts to get to first draft stage, if that makes sense?

    There’s no getting round the fact that, whatever we write, if we want it to be of good quality, it takes the proverbial blood, sweat and tears, buckets of, as well as self discipline, determination and not a little dose of bloody-mindedness. And we thought having a good plot was the hardest part?

    All of that, and maybe we’ll get readers/viewers,? And maybe we won’t. But we’ll keep on pouring those bucketfuls of b,s,and t; after all, that’s what creativity costs.

  2. Thanks for this, Julia. You do have to be a little bit mad to get into this business. I don’t really know why I started screenwriting – it took me a long time to even think of it as something I wanted to try, but then I had an idea and it felt very cinematic to me – I could see it quite clearly in my mind’s eye so I thought, well, I’ll just write it as a screenplay then. The whole thing seemed incredibly simple and I wrote that original story about five times over before deciding it would be a good idea to move on. I’ve another story which I’ve re-written a couple of times and which I now see will need A LOT more thought/research etc to get it into the shape I really want, so I’m dithering about whether to take that on, or leave it for now and start something new. My current plan is to do a few short scripts in the mean time which will hopefully be quick and easy to make (but probably not to write!)

    • I admire your tenacity; it mixes well with the little (?) bit of madness that compels us to keep on keeping on with our writing. Your current plan sounds like a very good one to me; each piece completed is another step taken along the very steep curve that is the writing journey which, once started, we can’t give up

  3. First of all let me say what a thoroughly well written and thought-out post this is. Script writing isn’t a discipline I’ve ever tried, or indeed know very much about, but I think i can appreciate the sheer effort and hard work that must go into writing and producing one, and as you say, often for little more than an hour or so’s air time on television.

    As for writing and then leaving your work for a’ settling’ period, that’s something I’ve been guilt of not doing in the past; being relatively new to blogging and regular writing, I’ve tended to write and post ‘as is’ so to speak, with little more than a cursory ms word automated spell check, let alone any proper editing and proof reading. But now that I’m more interested in writing towards publication than simply producing another blog post, it’s good to be able to finish a piece and just leave it to look at later with fresh eyes, and to edit and revise at my own pace rather than seeing such efforts as just a delay to posting.

    Editing and revising first drafts is of course as much hard work as writing the original; even with a relatively short piece of prose, say a less than five hundred word flash fiction piece, writing such a short piece can often be a relatively short affair, but revising and editing it, changing a word here and a word there to convey just the right meaning or effect, that can take several times longer than the original piece as a whole, so when I read a story that for one reason or another, doesn’t strike a chord with me or one that I think could be improved upon, it doesn’t mean for a second that I don’t appreciate the hard work that probably went into writing it.

    Thanks for writing this post, It was most illuminating to get a perspective on a different writing arena…

  4. Thanks for this – it’s always nice to have your efforts appreciated! I must admit it came as quite a shock to learn how much crafting serious writers do before they submit their work to scrutiny. I started out thinking that if you were inspired to tell a story, you’d be able to sit down and just write it! How wrong I was! However it’s comforting to think that the art of writing can be learned, and that with practice, you will improve; you don’t have to be born a genius!

  5. Veronica, I like this write-up, and I’m glad you understand that it takes time and effort, months and years, before you figure out what you’ve written or which direction your narrative has taken.

    I learned Screenwriting at NYU and I remember our professor telling us that Michael Arndt who wrote the first draft of Little Miss Sunshine in just 3 days, went on to spend one year rewriting that draft one hundred times or so before shopping it around (He won Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the film).

    Drawing a parallel here: When I did an acting course at Lee Strasberg, I got to play Ernest in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I remember Algernon was the other character, and our acting teacher wanted us to choose a portion from the play where Algernon and Ernest are together. So we chose a particular scene and started rehearsing, improvising, rehearsing and improvising – till we reached a stage where we developed our own understanding of these characters, and though our interpretation was slightly different from Oscar Wilde’s, we made these characters our own – we possessed them. It was a process!

    Similarly when we write, as rightly mentioned by you, it takes long before we own/make unique our plot/story, the protagonists, characterization, tone, theme, etc.

    Hemingway said that the first draft of anything is shit, which Anne Lammott has explained elaborately in Bird by Bird.

    • Hi Mahesh,
      Thanks for this. I’m not surprised that Michael Arndt won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine – it’s one of my favourite films. Will look out for Bird by Bird too – sounds interesting. I don’t know about you, but I always find it hard to view my work objectively and identifying what needs to change and how, even after leaving it for a while.

  6. Tom

    Great piece of work this post is in itself Veronica. Before I go on, I thought I would mention two things that have kept me from getting back here.
    1. The ‘A to Z Challenge’, which I’d never attempted before, but thoroughly enjoyed, although it was bloody hard work.
    2. Your name comes pretty low on my Blogroll … but don’t worry, this comment is proof that I’ve now streamlined those I’m following, and you’ll be on one of my regular blog patrols.
    Now, back to this post of yours. I agree with both Julia and Paul. Personally, I have attempted your particular discipline, but knew quite quickly that it wasn’t for me.
    On the revision scene. I write a short story from start to finish if possible. I revisit to find the right opening lines (the hook), and usually it’s somewhere further in than the original opening. I revisit, edit, save, and on the third session I usually print and read aloud to edit. On average I can take four or five sessions over some weeks to get it right.
    For a novel, like the one I’m working on now, I leave the entire manuscript alone for about a month. We’re not that different in our aims, or our methods it seems, but there is a reason. We want the best for the consumers of the end product.
    See you next time, and keep working at it.

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